Sculpting Teams: Additive and Reductive Techniques for Design Organizations


Sculpting Teams: Additive and Reductive Techniques for Design Organizations

Continuous Design

Downsizing. Reduction in Force. Discharges. Termination. These are realities that we are facing in difficult times. Laying off staff is always a challenging thing to do. Framing the decisions and tradeoffs requires deliberation, taking an emotional and cognitive toll.

But sometimes, the best thing for growth is a purposeful organization reshaping to focus on business needs. Joe Meersman has spent the last decade of his career building multidisciplinary teams to deliver experiences.

Join Joe to learn about a scalable process for forming effective teams, structuring them thoughtfully for maximum performance and results, addressing team culture during turbulent times, and building positive momentum to reach goals. You’ll leave this session with a better understanding of how to anticipate and manage obstacles with confidence.

Joseph Meersman

Joseph Meersman, Senior Director of Design,Intapp

hi everybody

how's it going

can you all hear me good volume

we getting a good glare off the top my

forehead here

awesome well welcome everybody

um I'm really excited to to be here and

um you know kind of kind of tough act to

follow as far as uh Kevin goes


we're gonna have a little bit of an

overlap in terms of the content that

we're speaking to today but before I

actually get started here I just wanted

to extend uh a hearty uh thank you out

to Rory and Catherine who run the

conference as well as the staff in the

back making all the things happen

uh all right so it's a little bit of a


additive and reductive techniques

for design organizations

let's go ahead and Jump Right In

so hi my name is Joe meersman I have

over 20 years of experience that kind of

spans research design and a little bit

of leadership

and uh you know like many of us I've

been part of many different

organizations and been privy to being

shaped as well as been in a position to

shape the orgs and for what it's worth I

don't always put my back to the audience

but when I do I promise it's when I have

something important to say

um I've been in many positions over the

years this is just kind of like a high

level snapshot of 2002 to 2003 what

you'll see is organizations small medium

and large as well as a little bit of uh

in-house design org work as well as some

outside Consulting

and I did want to take a moment to say

that I'm fortunate to have have led all

the people that you see on this slide

they've been part of some of the lessons

that I've learned over time and they've

contributed to the knowledge that I'm

here to share with you all today

um just as an FYI it's going to move

pretty quick uh I have about 35 slides

I'm up here for about

22 minutes and 46 45 44 seconds so

um bear with me

as I move through things as far as what

it is I'm going to cover there are

really four chapters

we are right now in the the opening

Salvo the story time and from there I'm

going to transition into the shaping

with purpose segment where I'm going to

talk a little bit about you know what

what my definition of shaping is and

I'll provide a little bit of advisement

from there from that point forward when

I'm going to go into is what I'm

referring to as reductive Edition I know

it kind of sounds like but

again stick with me it's worth it and

then at the end I'm going to try to to

disproportionately spend a little bit

more time in the thoughts and tips right

I I kind of peeked around the corner and

saw the show of hands as far as like

who's been laid off and what position

we're all in

um so I'm more or less right on time


as far as stories go I'd like to take

you back to

a day that was you know pre-pandemic

um January 7th was kind of like that

that that that that first Monday coming

off of a holiday break where everyone's

like relatively plugged in and or maybe

a little cranky you know

um it was a it was a cold day in Austin

which means it was maybe like 55 degrees

Fahrenheit all right and uh you know

it's a fairly typical day you know park

the car get in the elevator get off the

elevator drop my stuff off at my desk

and I got pulled immediately into a

conference room with two vice presidents

that told me hey the results of that

Management Consulting Group coming in

that's been here for the last couple

months they're not looking good for


and things are going to go one of two


neither of which are particularly good

but we're rooting for you and

kind of didn't know what to make of that

um and and I asked them like okay about

how much time do I have and they said

well there's likely to be like a

resource action or a riff coming in

um what did they say anywhere from two

weeks to two months which was great

um and I did have a little bit of a

dilemma and I started to think about

time span as well as what I was going to

do and then

um on

January 8th that you know first official

Tuesday of the year the two VPS were

walked out of the building and they lost

their jobs

to put me in an odd spot and I'm gonna

return back to that story at the end of

the presentation what I had to do was I

had to start shaping with purpose I

didn't know what my time span was I

didn't know exactly what I was going to

do I was running a modest size team of

about 20 designers across three

countries a whole bunch of time zones I

know many of us have been in that


but when I'm talking about shaping with

purpose I'm really talking about these

four items up on screen

and when I'm referencing jobs to be done

it's going to be a little bit different

than what y'all likely associate with

jobs to be done

in that to me it's really about

understanding what the role of design is

and what the kpis of the business happen

to be right it's easy to get focused on

delivery and like the day-to-day you

know kind of shipping of the pixel

but sometimes that big picture can get

away from us and we want to clearly

identify the goals of the business so

that way not only can we deliver but

also it's the understanding of the why

behind that goal as well as trying to

make sure that if we can't hit all of

those lofty goals that we have a reason

and a rationale for why that's not the


and this is like platitude city right

anytime somebody talks about kpis or

okrs and all the tlas it kind of gets

lost but what I'm really advocating for

is just going back to your partners

um in the business and in development to

try to make sure that we understand that

like we we can keep our eye on the ball

when maybe we have to start

reshaping downsizing call which you will

outside of that when it comes to the

configuration of a design organization

um it's easy to see this on a slide but

it's so much more difficult to achieve

right at the senior level what you want

I mean given my experience are good

player coaches that want to Mentor at

the junior level what you really want to

do is bring in people that

that that are not going to be

intimidated by complexity and or like a

difficult operating environment and you

know we want to achieve a balance but it

is Goldilocks if it was easy to do

um we'd all be doing it very naturally

as far as

asymmetry is concerned I just kind of

want to like slow things down here a

little bit because

when I talk about experience I don't

mean years of experience

and when you're thinking about hiring or

potentially like having to have to

address a resource action I try to take

into account the fact that not only do I

want to balance of Junior and senior but

that Junior people can actually have a

good amount of experience a good example

is for any of us that work in like CRM

or a platform environment right multiple

different facets of that experience can

live inside of that product and if

someone's only had one job or one

position but they were there for like

two or three years they're going to have

a good amount of uh of depth but they

may not have a ton of breadth right and

then if I want to hire somebody from an

agency they're going to have that that

higher level of breath and they're going

to come at things from a different angle

um as far as attitude goes

nobody wants to work with Eeyore right

like we all have difficult days but the

last thing you want to do is bring

somebody into an org that's you know

kind of sticking in the mud right or if

you have a stick in the mud you do kind

of want to take the time in in the time

out of your day either as a leader as a

peer to kind of check in on that person

and understand what's going on when it

comes to the shaping of an org you might

kind of think about whether or not that

person's a really good long-term fit and

then when it comes to aptitude I do hire

on aptitude I don't know about many of

y'all here but

you know if if a person is Scrappy and

and really wants to get at it that's

somebody I'm going to want to do

everything to keep inside of the

organization regardless of where they

went to school

um I could easily spend the remainder of

my 15 minutes and 40 39 38 seconds here

uh talking about Divergence convergence

and diversity but essentially your users

are not monolithic so your team

shouldn't be right and what we want to

do is carefully balance the types of

individuals that we bring into the org

because they're going to have a

different frame of reference they're

going to solve problems differently

right and when I'm talking about like

diversity I mean demographics

psychographic I mean location based I'm

talking hard skills soft skills it kind

of comes down to that that balance of

the organ what you what you want to


reductive Edition I came to this kind of

phrase because to me

as someone with an industrial design

background and who enjoys you know

sculpting I guess part time with my


um there are two essential techniques

that we want to keep in mind when we're

trying to build something it's either

additive or reductive

and since it's all about the outcomes to

me I did want to elaborate a little bit

on what I meant by each of these items

right so we're either in a constant

organic state of expanding and

Contracting just by nature of business

and by nature of the organizations that

we work inside of

I'm going to start kind of at the low

point and talk a little bit about some

reductive techniques


this is something that I want everyone

to consider

in that there there is a value exchange

that takes place in between us and the

places that we work right we're we're

not just there to pay the bills I mean

of course we're there to pay the bills

but not solely for that purpose right as

designers as developers as product

managers we're building a book we're

building a portfolio sometimes that

manifests in pixels other times that

manifests in our body of experience and

how we address certain scenarios that we

get into right and we we do kind of loan

out our time it is a gift of our time

and resources and we do benefit from



um when it when it's off it it is off

and I think we've all probably been in

environments or in organizations where

that's the case

now regrettable losses and

non-regrettable losses sound really

really cold in terms of terminology but

essentially if someone isn't a good fit

for the org

that is a non-regrettable loss right we

want to let them go but we want to be

happy for them we want them to find a

space where they're going to be happier

where they're going to be productive


that's the difficult conversation the

the fun conversation is actually the

regrettable loss

I had somebody leave an org last year

that came in as part of a startup

all the subject matter expertise you

could imagine right knew the product

better than the product managers in many


when they left we felt the loss but we

did celebrate it I was really happy for

this individual because they moved up in

their career they moved out of a space

that they were probably getting a little

bit bored in right and the bottom Point

here is really important in that we're

we are just more than our jobs and as

designers it is kind of a small

community right so we want to make sure

to treat each other with the respect

that we deserve

the fun part of shaping

is what I'll refer to as the grayscale


I I don't really like rules

um I'm I'm not someone that asked for

permission or forgiveness that's just

who I am but it is really good to know

what the rules are before you start to

bend them right and you know it's I

think as designers there are some of us

that want to paint within the lines and

those that are more comfortable thinking

outside the box listen people it's all a

gang of mixed metaphors here but what

I'm trying to tell you is you should

take advantage of the situations that

you're placed in and you owe it to

people that are going to experience a

loss of a position to give them a

running start

yeah record skips

if you're not sure whether or not you

should type something into slack don't

that's a phone call

if you're worried about whether or not

you should email that don't it's a phone

call and if you're worried about whether

or not you should even place a phone

call go reach out to somebody who's a

lawyer or someone that's like legal

adjacent before you shop anything back

to HR but when I'm talking about giving

people a head start I mean pulling

somebody aside having a conversation

with them being up front and not telling

them hey it's coming tomorrow but as a

reminder right like the economy is kind

of Chambly everything's a little wobbly

or hey as you know you know Boston

Consulting Group is down the hall you

know let's let's try to read the tea


with all those unpleasantries out of the

way I think now we can talk about the

additive techniques for shaping and

design organization and to me there are

three scenarios one of which is you're

coming in as a leader and you're

inheriting a team and my advisement

there is keep in mind it's the team it's

not my team and you are of the team

which means you really don't want to

like force fit what your version of

culture is on to them right

um as far as a takeover is concerned

sometimes that just happens to us in a

leadership and management position where

you'll get an email or a slack or

whatever hey congrats you not only run

product design but also the marketing

design team what's that you don't know

anything about marketing that's cool

because it has the word design in it


um and then of course we we have

situations where it's these Britney

Spears situations of every nine to 18

months a reward comes around and we just

shrug our shoulders and we make the best

of it

outside of that

strong advisement around having a vision

for an organization is dear God don't

come in and flip tables and reorg

tomorrow because that creates an

environment of fear and for anybody

that's had a table flipper leader it is

kind of a fearful moment because you

don't know like where you fall in that

org or much less whether or not you had

something to say about it outside of

that when it comes to that midterm

running an audit and getting to know the

people is really really important and

when it comes to that long-term Vision

always be bold and optimistic


if you ask for 12 head count you're more

likely to get eight so if you actually

only need eight to get the job done I

might suggest asking for 14 and seeing

what happens it's all in negotiation

as far as recruitment goes

real estate has a term that's uh that's

known as a pocket listing that means

nothing ever goes on to the MLS or like

the official listings it's a whisper

it's a handshake right it's it's it's

kind of a nod that's actually how you

want to be able to bring in people that

you've worked with in the past as far as

the network Spike that's that's a

megaphone you're going to get a larger

audience and you're going to get mixed



per the bottom bullet point here mine

the macro and micro environment and keep

in mind that if there's a referral from

someone that you work with regardless of

who they are that that is someone you

call up that's somebody you hop on a

zoom with even if they're woefully


because you never know when you might

need a favor from the person that

referred them

so I have a few parting thoughts here

and hopefully we can hop into some q a

the structure for thoughts and tips is

pretty simple to do not and try

so as far as the do and do not are

concerned that's pretty basic and as far

as the try goes this is where it's

really difficult for us to like practice

what we preach when it comes to

iterative design

but I would recommend giving a few of

these things a shot especially if you've

kind of considered them from afar but

you end up kind of painted into a corner

so as far as the things that you're

going to want to do right when shaping

an organization regardless of whether or

not you're adding head count or reducing

head count is always stay humble and

don't get too far ahead of yourself

um we all have different management

styles I tend to run a little bit more

transparently than others but I would

tell you that

um it is advisable to just I don't know

I guess run in the open as much as you

can as far as focusing on outcomes is

concerned that's something that we

should always keep in mind and by

outcomes I mean make sure to take into

account or otherwise celebrate every

little win you can especially when the

times are rough right and you know when

when the times are great it makes it

that much better as far as things that

are more strategic in nature to do

always important to build Bridges and by

that I mean not only with you know our

good old Chums and PM and development

but also in like the HR org it's it's

good to kind of owe somebody a favor or

look at a portfolio here and now and


um and as far as semantics go you do

want to spend time with your HR people

to understand what the right terms are

in order to address both the hiring and

the firing right you you don't want to

use the wrong word at the wrong moment

because then it'll kind of make it seem


you you might be privy to

unfortunate times

as far as things not to do

if you're just coming into an

organization as a leader

and it's Monday maybe wait until like

Friday to loudly Proclaim that you're

hiring right you want to make sure that

like the turf is good and that the the

environment is fertile ground to bring

in people


um I would also say that focusing on on

effort as opposed to outcomes is very

dangerous right I don't know about

anybody else in here but I am an

absolute process junkie I love watching

I love looking through portfolios

um How It's Made is probably one of my

favorite television programs I can't be

I can't over share that exuberance with

somebody from product management or

development that just needs to get

something shipped right

um and then I also mentioned table

flipping is just you know bad form I

don't think I need to to overplay that

point as far as things to avoid doing I

I've worked in Enterprise software I

have been part of organizations that are

just growing because

because they can

because design should be at a certain

ratio because all these different

reasons but as a leader if you can't

Naval gaze and say we need to grow

because we need to scale quality or we

need to achieve a better outcome then

maybe you should like hold back and

think about other areas of growth and or

where other head count can be allocated

um as far as chameleoning what I mean to

say there is you want to follow

corporate culture but you don't want to

contribute it to like negative corporate

culture and or

um water cooler which is really weird

because we don't go into offices

typically anymore

um as far as over sharing is concerned

um I have worked for design directors

that when they're bless you uh painted

into a corner they'll kind of say like

oh well I'm having problems with that

Designer or you know I just I I can't

get the outcomes out of that individual

that's an awful way to lead people and

other leaders pick up on when they

on their own teams so just never be a

part of that and always shrug your

shoulders and say yeah we've we have

areas to improve because who doesn't

as far as things to try is is concerned

before going on like a hiring Blitz you

might want to bring in a few Freelancers

to see whether or not that was just a

spike in need or whether or not

um it's basically an acute need or a

chronic need from the side of the


you always want to Source opinions but

not Source Solutions as far as how

you're going to build and or like where

you need to like firm up

um I'm not a big fan of baby steps so I

put toddler steps in there but

essentially when hiring and or dealing

with the reduction of a team you don't

want to go all in right away right you

kind of want to think about what those

those right next steps are going to be

um as far as things you should try if

you can look at your team and say wow

we're really over indexed on ux maybe

you want to pick up a visual designer if

you don't have a researcher on your team

it's probably about time to you know

hire one

um outside of that I would recommend

just be as transparent as possible with

the team in terms of resourcing I have

had many opportunities during a team

meeting to say okay we're going to get

head count where should we allocate it

so bringing it back tip to tail

the cliffhanger

the two VPS were walked out of the


you know

pretty soon after the seventh and I was

kind of in a position where I had to

size up all these different scenarios I

had to think about like the size of the

Riff that was coming was it small was

medium was it large what is the minimum

viable design team oh just an awful term

but I had to go through those Paces

because I really wasn't sure what was

around the corner and my two confidants

had been exited right so I I did

something that exploited that that gray

space and five hours a week the design

team reviewed each other's portfolios

they reviewed each other's resumes

and when they asked me why I set up

those meetings I said because it's a

good idea

because inarguably it is something that

we want to do for each other as peers

and as Leaders of a capacity but also

um because the economy was starting to

wobble and I wanted to make sure

everybody's books were in good shape I

didn't know who was going to stay and

who was going to go which was really

pertinent information right I mean what

I was able to do was truly redefine what

success meant and try to think about

like how we were just going to keep

delivering value but also like I owed a

debt to the people that I was fortunate

enough to be in a leadership position


and it it was kind of interesting in



you know

I helped out everyone that I could

and that was a really good thing uh

because after the the resource reduction

everyone found a job within a month one

person found a job within the end of the


and that was it not only felt good but

then I was the captain of the ship and

um yeah I lost my job like two weeks

after I had unfortunately had to lay off

a good portion of the team

um but that's a story for another time

thank you for the gift of yours


awesome and thank you so much Joe I

think you know one of the things that

you said about creating teams or

building teams reflect your users is so

important they think that when we're

thinking about designing

um building products for our users out

there we want to remember

um that we are not our user solely

um so questions for Joe

right there

can you raise your hand

oh my God just shout it out yeah I'll

repeat it back




I have a lot of friends who say that

this community can be kind of silo

sure so the question had to do with

correct me if I'm wrong here the dynamic

between the pocket listing and the

network Spike right those are two

tactics associated with hiring

and what I mean by the pocket listing is

if you've worked with somebody in the

past and you've had a good time working

with them and you feel like the

environment's right and you want to work

with them again that's when you reach

out in your network right and I I'll say

that's for a fairly specific role and or

if you're not the hiring manager but you

want to refer somebody that's kind of

what I'm talking about there the balance

there with that Network spike is more

along the lines of if you only do one or

the other you're you're gonna miss the

boat right like I wouldn't know that

you're looking for work or you're

looking for work or you're looking for

work and you up there right so I think

to me it it's a balance right and I just

think with the network Spike you're you

don't know what you're going to get

right so if you work at a very small


and there isn't a lot of HR to to prop

you up the network spike is is going to

give you a high amount of volume that's

going to result in you having to do like

a lot of legwork to go through all the

qualified candidates

is that helpful

let's definitely connect after I'm off

the stage yeah I'd love to get some


anyone else


I have a question for you oh so you

talked a little bit about transparency

and openness I wonder how you balance

that with kind of the other aspect of

that which could be like fear generation

how do you approach that

um you mean like being too open yeah


I think for me I I try to be as

transparent as I can be right so there

are definitely times where as a leader

we we want to be

um more of a filter and other times

we're you know we'll we'll be more of a

sieve and I think for me I try to

balance that openness with a little bit

of hey I don't really know any better

than anyone else as to where like the

macro economic climate is going but I'll

tell you that

you know it's how can I put this

I I trust in the people that have

management roles that I get to work with

as far as like when do you think we

should disclose this information

or do you think it's appropriate to talk

openly about x y and z i do I do kind of

a little bit of uh sourcing there little

feelers out oh yeah I mean I've yeah it

helps me make easier to understand

mistakes as opposed to the big ones that

leave me kind of fumbling yeah I think

it stays true to who you are in like

your own empathy for your team as well

better or worse yeah for sure love that

anyone else

right here


just said like just you mentioned the

portfolio reviews which I think was a

really good sounds like really kind

thing to do basically to leverage the

team's brain power to help with a

potential hiring situation

um but how do you introduce something

like that right because you mentioned

saying like oh the macroeconomic climate

Etc but by introducing say the team

portfolio or reviewing each other's

portfolio aren't you kind of

telegraphing that this is

organizationally where you're potential

might be going there might be layoffs

like to the point of fear generation is

that how do you how do you find that

balance sure it's a great question

I aired on the side of making a mistake

in how can I put this

it's been my experience that people are

a bit smarter than we give them credit

for and when when things are starting to

wobble what I try to do is I try to make

sure that we're giving each other the

gift of time and or that we're getting

some of that value exchange back from

the organization

I mean the thought of people having the

opportunity to put their books together

during a slow time I think is something

that we should we should all do in that

like there's nothing worse than the the

scramble trademark patent-pending

of I just lost my job I don't know how

much longer I'm gonna have access to the

files that I've worked on

or I mean come on we've all dealt with

that right it takes a tremendous amount

of rigor to keep up with like having

that Google uh drive that you're not

supposed to have that has your work in


come on

right I mean it let's be honest right

like that that is our our body of work

so I I want to celebrate any opportunity

I can give people to do that

I love that well thank you so much Joe

um another round of applause for for who

thanks everybody